I join Good Letters with excitement, gratitude, and not a little bit of self-doubt. In the days when I was an unpublished aspirant—before I learned that becoming a better writer was far more important than nailing the perfect query letter—I heard from the experts that you should never advertise your lack of qualifications when contacting agents and editors. Strike anything that starts with: “though I have yet to be published” or “despite my inexperience” Proceed with confidence. Act as if.
Here, in my inaugural post, I’m going to break those rules, not out of false humility or by way of an expectations-minimizing disclaimer, but to make a bigger point, one that I think matters to anyone pursuing a creative calling.
So, let me lay it out: It took me six years to get my undergraduate degree at a state college. That degree was not in English or Creative Writing or anything of the usual degrees one gets when they plan to write. Oh, I started as an English major, but Shakespeare broke me.
I have no advanced degrees. I took one Learning Annex workshop with Robert McKee. Or, I should say, half of a workshop, as the man himself gave me a headache and I didn’t understand most of what he said about arch-plots and anti-plots and Aristotle. Once, I went to hear Anne Lamott speak about writing and sat in the back. I’m sure she gave a lot of great writing advice. All I remember is that she said writers should have a really good chair.
When I took my first frightened steps into writing fiction, I did so in the closet, all alone and a little bit ashamed. Who did I think I was? What did I think I was doing? I told no one. I didn’t dare say to anyone that I wanted to be a writer. I could barely say it to myself. Eventually I did come out a bit, joined a writing group, and began to offer my work to the world. Which wasn’t interested. The first real writing workshop I took was at the Glen, and the Glen remains my sole workshop experience.
Fifteen years after making those first steps of my largely autodidactic journey, I’ve found success as a novelist and have had opportunities I never dreamed I would. Yet I don’t feel deep down whatever it is I thought I’d feel once I achieved the career markers that I have. I still struggle under the weight of doubt—in myself, in my writing, in my calling, and in my worthiness and my belonging and my intellect.
Illustrating the latter: I subscribe to Image but often don’t understand exactly what it is I’m reading. I got through Wise Blood and have asked someone smarter than me to explain it sometime. I can sooner quote LL Cool J than T.S. Eliot. (And I had to look up the proper spelling of “Eliot.”) There have been times I’ve opted to watch Tommy Boy (again) over whatever esoteric film has been lately discussed by critics.
Sometimes I’m convinced I have the career I do not because of talent, not because I deserve it, but because of what has seemed to be a fruitful combination of God’s grace and my belligerence. (Also I can’t think of any other work or lifestyle I’m fit for. Days I’m sure my career is played out, I feel a little like Nigel Tufnel at the end of This Is Spinal Tap, pondering his possible post-rock-star life as a shoe salesman.)
At the 2004 Glen Workshop, I wrote the following in my journal during a talk given by author and illustrator Barry Moser:
“Talent is as common as housedust and as useful as tits on a boar. What matters is drive, dedication, discipline, indefatigable energy, and the willingness to fail.” Once he gave up the whole question about whether or not what he does is “art,” he could finally just “concentrate on working.”
Those have been some of the most precious words I’ve ever heard, and I’ve taken them deep into myself to remember again and again when I’m buckling under that weight of doubt—when I’m starting or finishing a new novel, when I say yes to a new opportunity I’m not sure I’m up to, when I worry and wonder at my place in the writing community and publishing industry, when I view my intellectual powers as dubious at best, and when I join the Good Letters bloggers, so many of whom are the writers I aspire to be.
When I find myself on a death-spiral of doubt and insecurity and comparison and other soul-crushing habits of the mind, I remind myself: Just put your head down and do the work.
Along with the quotable Moser, I think of Jesus’ parable of the talents, one of my favorites and one of the few whose meaning seems relatively obvious: Whatever God has given you, meager though it may be, you don’t hide it and bite your nails while expecting the worst. You do something with it, you put it to work. It takes faith. Writing or teaching or parenting or administrative assisting or, sometimes, just getting out of bed in the morning, takes faith.
Is it going to be worth it? Am I going to screw it up? Will it—whatever my “it” is—be rejected? Do I belong, am I worthy, do I matter?
These questions, I’ve decided, are not my business. Maybe what I remember from Anne Lamott’s talk truly is more important than whatever she said about writing itself. Be sure you have a good chair. Get comfortable. The work awaits.